An Austrian court this week sentenced British historian David Irving to three years in prison. His crime? Denying the holocaust.

Americans have steeled ourselves to an ugly truth: Our commitment to free expression means we must tolerate freedom of expression for people we despise, or else it means nothing.

But Europe is different. Public Holocaust denial is a crime in 10 European countries, from France to Lithuania. All of them not only suffered under Nazi occupation but were, in some degree, complicit in the deportation and killing of Jews during the war.

After the war, laws were enacted that banned Nazi insignia and the stiff-arm salute. It was not just a question of muzzling Jew-baiters; the European nations remember that fascists came to power within the mechanism of democratic electoral systems and with a great deal of popular enthusiasm. The laws were meant, in part, to prevent the rebirth of a lethal political movement.

As Hajo Funke, a German historian, put it: “We can’t afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard. It’s not that I don’t understand it, it’s just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time.”

Hence the 1992 Austrian law Irving was convicted under, which applies to “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media.”

Irving, 67, is a formidable amateur historian who has worked from primary sources to build up his picture of a Third Reich in which Jews certainly were mistreated and died in large numbers, but not by a methodical genocide ordered by Hitler.

It is perhaps too generous to see Irving’s Holocaust denial as a professional, rather than a personal, issue, but his reliance on primary sources in the Nazi archives may have led him into the paths of error. The Nazis certainly desired to be rid of the Jews. Sometime in 1941, as the war got out of hand, their vague plans to deport European Jews to Siberia or Madagascar morphed into pure genocide. But how and exactly when this happened is likely never to be known.

The Nazis, for all their reputation for ruthless efficiency ran an incredibly cumbersome and chaotic bureaucracy. Key documents disappeared in the malestrom of the war’s last days and the Gotterdammerung of the Third Reich. There exists no written order from the top commanding the Final Solution. The notorious, but vague, Wannsee Protocol survived in a single copy, discovered by U.S. prosecuters in the Nuremberg Trials after the principal Nazis were dead.

Instead, the history of the Holocaust must be built up from outside, from the physical evidence of the death camps and the ghettoes, and from the testimonies of tens of thousands of people — both survivors of the killing and those who helped carry it out. From this great mass of testimony an unmistakable picture emerges.

Irving already has been financially ruined and professionally disgraced by his persistence in Holocaust denial. But he should not be in jail; he should be out in the public arena trying to prove his case and seeing it shreded by the historical record. Like Jefferson, we are willing to “tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it.”

In history as in all intellectual activities, questioning and probing makes a strong case stronger. The truth need not fear a Devil’s advocate.

But there is yet another twist in this story. The Holocaust denial laws are in place in countries where Jews again are being beaten and Jewish cemeteries desecrated, not by neo-Nazi skinheads or German revanchists, but by Islamist immigrant gangs.

Irving’s writings feed the Islamists’ warped ideology, which run a close parallel to Hitler’s. But jailing Irving only adds the martyr’s halo to his sad career. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of Irving’s trial that Islamists around the world have been able to point to it as proof of hypocrisy in the Western commitment to freedom of speech as invoked in the case of the Danish cartoon drawings of Muhammad.

Politics David Irving